France’s Hong Kong: The leased territory of Guangzhouwan

Society & Culture

The “99-year lease” may be the most bureaucratic of euphemisms for colonization. Those leases followed the arrival of foreign troops and gunboats, but by “negotiating” leases, rather than compelling surrender, the European powers could claim this was business, not conquest.


This Week in China’s History: May 29, 1898

In April 1898, 200 French marines landed on the tropical coast of Guangdong. Their objective was a Qing fort but the French faced little resistance: the redoubt had been abandoned for some decades. They seized the facility and renamed it Fort Bayard, after a 15th-century knight who embodied chivalry and virtue. In contrast to its namesake “good knight,” Fort Bayard was an ill-considered and poorly supported imperial thrust, meant to challenge Hong Kong and underpin French expansion but falling far short of its founders’ ambitions.

In the weeks that followed their landing, the French marines made their way inland and, often violently, established the borders of their would-be colony. In late May, a treaty was signed establishing a 99-year lease on Guangzhouwan, an area encompassing some 500 square miles and close to 200,000 people, on the Leizhou Peninsula near the Qiongzhou Strait separating Hainan Island from the mainland.

Coastal Guangdong, merging into northern Vietnam, has long been contested. (Today, the region is divided between Guangxi and Guangdong, but until the 1950s Guangxi had no coastline). Hundreds of islands, bays, peninsulas, and estuaries make borders hard to establish and harder to maintain. Deepwater ports anchor overseas trade; rivers promise access to the interior. And with the capital far off in the north, imperial power was limited.

It was not surprising, then, that challenges to imperial power took root along this coastline. Pirates like Zhèng Yī Sǎo 鄭一嫂 found shelter in the coves and islands. The Qing found the southern coast so fraught that for decades it banned settlement near the sea, and moved everyone 10 miles inland, trying to starve dissent. European powers found the region to be China’s open door, establishing an enclave at Macau, then commercial ties with Guangzhou, and of course the British colony at Hong Kong.

The European presence in southeast China was not limited to Hong Kong and Macau, nor to Britain and Portugal. France, as early as 1700, sought an outpost on Chinese soil, although it first focused its attention on Indochina — today’s Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Britain established treaty ports at Beihi (Pakhoi) and Qiongzhou. A French war with the Qing in 1884-85 confirmed French power in Indochina and gave France a “sphere of influence” (a euphemism that does a lot of work) in southwestern China, bordering their colony in Vietnam. Rumors persisted that France would soon expand its interest on the Guangdong coast (Hainan Island was the most likely target, though the British presence there made it difficult to pull off.)

The 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War demonstrated for all to see that the Qing empire was — despite years of “self-strengthening” and its geographic expanse — vulnerable. This was not news to European empires that had for some time been prying parts off of China: Hong Kong island, but also the Treaty Port system that established little pieces of Europe (and America) up and down the coast. But the war with Japan changed the equation. So much closer than Europe, Japan could maintain an imperial presence in China in ways that states on the other side of the world never could. European states rallied, disingenuously, to defend Chinese sovereignty, forcing Japan to relinquish some of the territory it had claimed in the war. But in the same diplomatic breath, Europeans reenergized their own pursuit of territorial claims in China. Britain, Russia, France, Germany, and the United States moved in. “The scramble for China,” as Robert Bickers titled his book on the period, was on.

To maintain at least the pretense that they were supporting Chinese sovereignty, the Europeans expanded their empires — technically, at least — not through force but through finance. The “99-year lease” may be the most bureaucratic of euphemisms for colonization. Those leases followed the arrival of foreign troops and gunboats, but by “negotiating” leases, rather than compelling surrender, the European powers could claim this was business, not conquest.

Those leases included the German settlement at Qingdao and two settlements by the British — the New Territories that expanded their holdings in Hong Kong as well as the port of Weihaiwei on the Shandong peninsula. Russia obtained a shorter lease — 25 years — for its railway building in Manchuria, including the city of Harbin. The United States, shut out of the prime opportunities, instead advocated an “Open Door” policy that would, in effect, ensure that no single country could exclude the others when seeking to exploit China.

While Germany, Russia, Japan, and Britain concentrated further north, French vessels expanded on the southern coast. The British presence at Beihai and Qiongzhou kept the French from seizing Hainan, as many expected. Instead, Guangzhouwan became the French outpost in southern China.

Visions of a French Hong Kong roused French dreams, British fears, and Chinese loathing. Placed administratively within the colonial structure of Indochina, Fort Bayard soon took on the appearance of many European outposts: colonial architecture, tree-lined boulevards, public gardens, and a Bund. Anti-colonial resistance was common. Historian Steven Pieragastini has described the political violence and reprisals in the territory: two French officials were beheaded in 1899; Chinese officials suspected of collaborating were assassinated so regularly that staffing the bureaucracy became difficult; French officials responded by imprisoning and torturing hundreds of Chinese believed to be complicit. The territory’s French population never exceeded 300, out of a total population of about 200,000, and “Guangzhouwan was a Chinese city in virtually every aspect.”

Geography and geopolitics meant that Guangzhouwan would never come close to being a “French Hong Kong,” but the port ran a profit thanks in part to the marginal location that kept it from becoming more successful. As Pieragastini put it, “the real bosses of Guangzhouwan were, from its inception until its dissolution, the Chinese opium merchants who were connected to wider networks in Hong Kong and Macao, and throughout southern China.” Both before and after the French period, smuggling was a major industry.

In the Second World War, Guangzhouwan enjoyed an unusual status by remaining Free French, in contrast to Indochina, which was occupied by the Japanese and operated as part of the Vichy regime. As a result, Guangzhouwan was a route into and out of China for Allied arms and materiel, and refugees fleeing Hong Kong or other Chinese cities. This continued until the Japanese occupation of the city in early 1943. After the war, Guangzhouwan was returned to Chinese sovereignty.

Today, what was Fort Bayard is known as Zhanjiang, with a population of more than 6 million. Although it never achieved the status its French colonizers aspired to, the People’s Republic sees the port as a key part of its naval strategic plan, and is the home port of the PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.